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Friday, April 26, 2013

Birding From Portland to San Juan Island

With a stretch of warm, summer-like weather I took advantage of some great days for birding. Before leaving Portland, I stopped by Vanport Wetlands where I added yellow-headed blackbird (143) to the year list. This was just a stop on our way to Smith and Bybee Lakes, a beautiful wetlands area nestled right near the Oregon-Washington border. It's a very green place in spring time, and the first part of the trail was just humming with yellow-rumped warblers - there were probably hundreds of them there!

There was lots of osprey (144) activity around - we saw three different pairs at or near the wetlands. There were numerous adult and immature bald eagles, too. Nothing outnumbered the turtles sunning themselves on logs, however. There were easily more than 100 visible from one overlook!

We saw a nice variety of waterfowl here, and some more uncommon sightings included a pair of bushtits and a calling pileated woodpecker.

The next day, Wednesday, it was time to start heading back north to the San Juan Islands, but we got an early enough start to make sure we had ample time to enjoy Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on the way. We spent two hours there, and it was pretty amazing to see that the parking lot was full on a weekday morning!

The number of people present didn't seem to put a damper on the bird sightings as I saw or heard nearly 40 species while we were there. The cliff swallows were in abundance, and were busy building their nests on the visitors center and on the Twin Barns. Tree swallows were also busy coming and going from nesting cavities in the deciduous trees along the first part of the walk. Pretty much all the expected duck species were present in pretty good numbers, too: northern shoveler, northern pintail, mallards, American wigeon, green-winged teal, bufflehead, ring-necked ducks, gadwall, and Canada and cackling geese. A pair of pied-billed grebes chased each other around the marsh and more savannah sparrows were singing around every corner. On the first stretch of the trail I also saw my first brown-headed cowbird (145) of the year, and I also heard a sora (146) call once.

In addition to all the waterfowl, the marshy areas were noisy with singing marsh wrens and common yellowthroat. The yellowthroat are often secretive, but one pair of males seemed to be in the middle of a territorial dispute and were chasing each other back and forth in plain sight. It was still tough to get a photograph of them, as whenever they landed they were obscured by grasses. This is the best picture I got - you can see the second male behind and to the right of the one in the foreground.

Out on the boardwalk part of the trail the bird activity quieted down substantially, but the landscape and the colors were still impressive to take in:

It was low tide, and only a few green-winged teal and a pair of greater yellowlegs seemed to be foraging in the mudflats. In the distance some glaucous-winged and mew gulls could be seen too. 

Time went quickly and all too soon it was time to get back on the road to catch our ferry. We made it home in the evening, but it wasn't straight back to work for me - I took a few extra days off to make sure I could enjoy a few days of spring time here on the island, too. Thursday was another awesome day with temperatures nearing 70 degrees, and I spent several hours out in some of my favorite birding spots. Inspired by the sora I heard at Nisqually, I wanted to see if I could turn up the species on San Juan Island as well, and indeed I heard a couple of birds at both Swan Valley Marsh and False Bay Creek. Also at False Bay Creek, the swallows seemed to be selecting nesting boxes and four turkey vultures soared overhead. Just like at Nisqually, I heard some more marsh wrens, common yellowthroat, and savannah sparrows, but also saw a hunting northern harrier and heard a single Virginia rail.

Down at the south end of the island, common camas is starting to bloom in the prairies:

We haven't quite hit our wildflower peak here yet, but the careful observer can still find lots of species in bloom right now:

While walking the prairies in search of wildflowers, a pair of American goldfinches (147) flew overhead, my first of the season. Large flocks of surf scoters and red-breasted mergansers could still be seen off of South Beach, and another northern harrier cruised over the grasslands. Savannah sparrows, seeming especially abundant this year, were also everywhere. The biggest surprises of the week were still in store for me, however.

As I drove along the Redoubt Road, I saw a bird fly up from near the ground to perch on a tree. At first I assumed it was another savannah sparrow, as nearly every bird I lifted the binoculars to throughout my walk had turned out to be one of these streaky sparrows with yellow by the eye and a buzzy call. Something about this one struck me as different, however, and am I ever glad I stopped! It turned out to be a female mountain bluebird (148). This species is usually only seen east of the Cascades, but a few always migrate west of the Cascades while heading to more northern climates and sometimes stop over on the San Juan Islands. This is only the second time I've seen the species in the county and my first time seeing one on San Juan Island. The bird flew further along the road and I was able to get this photo of it before she took off and flew out of the sight to the north:

From here I scanned the American Camp prairies with my binoculars and saw a beautiful red fox still in its lush winter coat, surprisingly my first fox of the day. Usually this time of year the prairies are active with foxes - to my surprise I saw lots and lots of rabbits (the national park has attempted and is to eradicate these guys from the historic grasslands) but only this one fox! With further scanning I saw something perched in a stand of fir trees, and I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw it was a short-eared owl. I thought all these owls had taken off by now, as they're usually only seen here in winter and I hadn't heard of any sightings since the last week of March. But, there it was! I was thrilled when after watching it for a few minutes it took flight, giving me the opportunity to get what I think is probably my best shot of the week:

Next up, the weather has turned cloudy again, but I've still got a few days off and plenty of places to explore. I'll report back with what I find!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Oregon Trip: Happy Camp

With my dad retiring from his job this month, it was time to take a trip to Oregon to help celebrate. First stop was at my parents' house in St. Helens, where a skunk visited us on the first night. It's a blurry picture because I didn't want to use flash and scare it, but it's amazing how close we got - pretty much face to face! Skunks are amazingly beautiful animals up close, but a bit oddly shaped: narrow and small up front, and higher and wider in the hind quarters.

My parents' feeders remain very active, with pine siskins, chickadees, juncos, Steller's jays, flickers, nuthatches, squirrels, and rufous hummingbirds:

Next up it was time to head to Happy Camp Beach in Netarts on the Oregon Coast for a long weekend's worth of celebrations with family and close friends. We rented a cabin with space for 12 people overlooking Netarts Bay. During low tides you could see up to 30 harbor seals hauled out on the sand spit, and also visible were common loons, surf scoters, red-breasted mergansers, western gulls, and sometimes large flock of brant (137).

On Saturday two of us hiked the Cape Lookout trail, which winds mostly through the woods but also offers stunning coastal views in places to both the north and the south:

There were probably a dozen or more wildflower species in bloom, including two types of violet, candyflower, twinflower, a paintbrush species, salmonberry, wild ginger and:

Western trillium (Trillium ovatum)

Fairybell species? (Disporum sp.)

Oregon oxalis or wood sorrel (Oxalis oregana)
While we had a bit of everything weather-wise over the course of the weekend, it was warm, clear, and sunny when we got to the end of Cape Lookout.

There was a lot of bird activity, including a raft of 500 or so common murres and one or two hundred Pacific loons, all flying from south to north. A pair of Caspian terns (138) flew by, as did a pair of ravens, and we could hear orange-crowned and Townsends warblers (139) singing. There relative calm was broken up by a cackling commotion that turned out to be a pair of peregrine falcons. It was pretty awesome from such a high vantage point to look down on them from above:

When other people at the lookout left, we were quiet enough that a ground squirrel was bold enough to come out and grab a few flower buds:

We spent about half an hour out there enjoying the sights and sounds and scanning for whales. It's past the peak of the gray whale migration, but it shouldn't be over entirely and Oregon has a small coastal resident population in the summer. I was disappointed not to see any, but I figured it wasn't to be, so we started back up the trail. I stopped at another small overlook and was just framing a picture when I heard the distinct kawoof of a whale taking a breath. There was my gray whale for the day, and it was pretty close! We saw it surface four times before diving. We walked back out to the end thinking we would see it again rounding the point, but it wasn't to be, so I was thankful we saw it at all.

The weather was supposed to be even nicer on Sunday, but instead it was drizzly all day. That didn't stop a group of us from helping my dad with a COASST survey, and unlike on my always empty San Juan Island beach, we found (parts of) five stranded sea birds: one glaucous-winged gull, three western gulls, and the wing of an alcid of some kind. I was also surprised when someone found some mushrooms growing right out of the sand near the grassy high beach. I've never seen that before! I wonder if there was wood or some other organic matter buried beneath?

Another surprise sighting was a brief look at a white-tailed kite (140) cruising the cliffs above!

After lunch a few of us headed over to Cape Meares, one of my favorite state parks along the Oregon Coast. Last time I was there the Cape Meares Lighthouse had just been vandalized and was closed, but it was open again (though with some bullet holes remaining in some of the irreplaceable glass panes) and we got to take a tour to the top.

There were more Caspian terns, common murres, and pelagic cormorants to be seen, and we also found one red-necked grebe. My dad added a whopping seven year birds here since he was still missing a lot of the common oceanic species, but I just added one that I was surprised wasn't on my list already: hairy woodpecker (141).

Inshore of the lighthouse we also took the short trail to see the Octopus Tree, a large Sitka spruce with eight living trunks that is an Oregon Heritage Tree:

The weather was beautiful again on Monday, but after a morning walk on the beach it was time to head back to Portland. We stopped on the way off a tip from a friend at the Tillamook Forest Center, where we found an American dipper (142) right under the suspension bridge just as described.

My parents had somewhere to be in the afternoon, so we spent a lazy couple of hours reading outside in the warm sunshine and enjoying the local wildlife. In addition to all the species I saw when we arrived, there were also mourning doves and band-tailed pigeons, and a single yellow-rumped warbler:

My parents' little pond was also bustling with micro flora and fauna. It's kind of hard to tell in the picture, but this is one of two clumps of frog eggs that I saw, with tadpoles well on their way developing:

In addition to all the great nature sightings, we had a great long weekend filled with fun games, good food, and great company. Thanks to everyone who came, and congrats Dad on your retirement!!!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

From Winter to Summer

This month - this season - is a true merge between winter and summer. Some mornings there has been a coating of frost on the ground, but some afternoons have been warm enough to walk outside with no more layers than a T-shirt. There are still bufflehead and ring-necked ducks at Westside Lake, but above them orange-crowned warblers sing and rufous hummingbirds display. Some days have been windy, rainy, and downright chilly, while others have been bright and sunny and bordering on warm. Needless to say, I've been fully enjoying those nicer days and spending more and more time outside.

Sometimes we get all kinds of weather in a single day or over the course of just a few hours. On one such afternoon, the result was a rainbow (actually a faint double rainbow!) over Brown Island seen right off our front porch:

I've been doing some bird monitoring out at False Bay Creek, and back on April 5th I heard my first common yellowthroat (130) of the season singing a single tentative song. By now, they are confidently trilling away in all the marshy areas on the island.

Last Sunday I went for a walk with four friends at Three Meadows Marsh, which is probably experiencing its most active month bird-wise right now. There were pairs of bufflehead, northern shoveler, mallards, pied-billed grebes, coot, ring-necked ducks, and wood ducks on the marsh. The most impressive sighting was FIVE swallow species, a first for me in the month of April. The tree and violet-green swallows were as expected the most common, but there were also a few more barn swallows, a single cliff swallow (132), and a pair of northern rough-winged swallows (133). There were probably a good 20 marsh wrens singing around the marsh, along with more yellowthroat. In total, two hours turned up a very impressive 40 species.

Today I took advantage of a half-day at work to spend the afternoon outside, but before leaving the work place I added orange-crowned warbler (134) to my year list. I'm surprised this one has taken so long to check off. I'm pretty sure I've glimpsed and faintly heard a few before today, but I just wasn't sure enough until now! That sighting, however, helped push our work bird list past 30 species this year, which is way more than I would have expected!

After lunch I headed out to the upland trails near the Lime Kiln Quarry. I was surprised to hear my first warbling vireo (135) of the year - a bit early for this species, but I checked the song on my bird app and it was unmistakable. A little further down the trail I heard a singing Hutton's vireo (136), another year bird!

There have been lots of mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) butterflies out in the last few weeks, and today I finally got close enough to one to get a photo:

The quarry overlook was beautiful this afternoon. While taking in the view I could see or hear violet-green swallows, American robins, orange-crowned warblers, purple finches, chestnut-backed chickadees, and red-breasted nuthatches. 

I had seen a couple of rufous hummingbirds, but was surprised when a male Anna's hummingbird perched nearby. The Anna's are here year-round, but seem to fade into the background a bit during the few months after the flashy and aggressive rufous hummers arrive. 

Next up, a trip to the Oregon Coast! Hopefully the weather will cooperate, as then there will be more pictures to share and some more birds for the year list!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Enjoying the Spring Weather

The weekend continued with the awesome weather - sunny, blue skies, and close to 60 degrees. I took full advantage by spending a lot of time outside, both going on walks and birding and just sitting in and soaking up the sun.

A walk around Three Meadows Marsh was especially pleasant, with singing marsh wrens and red-winged blackbirds around every corner. Right when reaching the marsh I also heard a Virginia rail.

I also heard a pileated woodpecker (128), saw a pair of wood ducks (129), and spotted an early barn swallow (130) in and among the violet-green and tree swallows. It wasn't just bird life, either. I also saw three Pacific tree frogs and a garter snake.

A visit to Land Bank's Westside Preserve was more about sitting in the sun and reading, but I couldn't keep myself from picking up the camera when I spotted some wildflowers in bloom. The first one I saw was satin flower, also known as grass widows (Olsynium douglasii):

And one of my favorites, shooting star (Dodecatheon sp.):

It was a little tough to be inside at work on Monday as the nice weather persisted. I left a little early and headed straight to Land Bank again to decompress from the day, which was a great decision:

Here we are on Tuesday and it's apparent the weather is changing back to being a little grayer, cooler, and wetter again. The great bird sightings are coming in left and right, however, so I'm sure there will be some more good sightings in the near future!